The incredible new Vanity Fair piece on Romney's secretive off shore tax accounts and business practices at Bain immediately made me think of one of my favorite video clips of 2012, this one where Romney is talking about how issues related to the concentration of wealth should only be discussed in "quiet rooms":
Mitt Romney undeniably likes his secrets, especially when it comes to money, and I have to admit that the revelations in Vanity Fair gave me a different take on the "quiet rooms" quote. I had always assumed it was just Mitt being Mitt, doing his classic Thurston Howell III imitation, another in a long line of Mitticisms (I like being able to fire people, I know a couple of Nascar team owners, did I tell you the funny story about how my dad laid off a bunch of people, etc.) reminding us how cluelessly out of touch Mitt was. It was also the ultimate in big money Republicanism: we don't talk about these issues in public because we don't want people to get mad and start a class war. But now it occurs to me what Mitt was really trying to guard in his quiet rooms: all the millions he has secretly stashed away.
What Mitt, with his offshore accounts and his secretive business practices and his endorsement of the Ryan budget which gives even more advantages to Wall Street tycoons like himself, is trying to preserve is the ability to play by a different set of rules than the rest of us. He wants a world where the wealthy have all these advantages and loopholes and secret deals and lower tax rates, precisely because that was his entire business model at Bain Capital. He wants a world where he doesn't have to pay taxes on his accounts in Bermuda and the Caymans and Luxembourg and Switzerland. He wants a world where he can recruit any sleazebag overseas investor to invest in Bain. As Alex Seitz-Wald at Salon.com puts it: "This pattern of elusiveness is hardly confined to Romney's finances, but rather defines his public life."
Mitt's entire career is defined by the secrets he has, and the fact that he didn't have to play by the same rules as everyone else except for a few other well-connected Wall Street guys. The way Mitt made his money is exactly the kind of thing we should be talking about in this presidential campaign -- and not only because it relates directly to Romney's character, experience, and values. We should be talking about this because we should be debating as a country whether we want a country whose economic system is structured primarily to benefit a small number of wealthy, well-connected insiders operating behind closed doors, manipulating the tax code and financial markets to become more and more wealthy; or whether we want a country where businesses make money the old-fashioned way, by manufacturing and selling quality products, and playing by the same rules everyone else has to play by. By and large, with only occasional exceptions where Bain actually created real new jobs, the way Romney became wealthy was to make other people poorer -- manipulating the financial markets and tax code, off-shoring jobs, cutting wages and benefits, laying off people, driving companies into bankruptcy while still getting huge fees from them. He also ripped off the rest of us taxpayers through the outrageous carried interest loophole, through loading up companies with debt and then writing it off, and through taking advantage of the taxpayer-backed Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation's obligation to pay off pensions when Bain's companies went bankrupt. I guess it is not surprising that having made most of his money that way, he decided to keep so much of that money invested in secret overseas accounts.
No wonder Mitt Romney wants to keep this discussion confined strictly to "quiet rooms". I would too if I had stashed so many of the millions I made from off-shoring jobs and all these other revolting business practices into secret off-shore accounts. But it is time for America to have this discussion -- and not just in quiet rooms.